HR Management & Compliance

Hostile Environment: How Mishandling A Harassment Complaint Cost One Employer $894,000


In April, we reported how a savvy employer successfully defended itself against a wrongful termination claim by conducting a thorough investigation and review of the facts before making the decision to terminate. This month, we look at a case in which an employer had ample opportunities to protect an employee from harassment but didn’t-because of a botched investigation-and wound up getting hit with a huge verdict.

Supervisors Didn’t Take Action

Bernadette Gatewood, a black transportation planner for Caltrans, had been working in the agency’s Stockton office for several months when a clerical worker allegedly racially harassed her. Gatewood said the clerk imitated black actors on television in a disparaging way, made bigoted remarks about black people, and refused to do any work for Gatewood.

Gatewood complained to her supervisor and asked that the clerk be moved away from her work area, according to Richard J. Burton, one of the attorneys who represented Gatewood. But the supervisor took no action.Because of the continuing problem, Gatewood appealed to her supervisor’s superiors, who also did nothing to stop the worsening behavior. Eventually, she filed a formal complaint with Caltrans headquarters in Sacramento and asked to be transferred there, but was turned down. During this time, Gatewood began to suffer severe emotional and physical problems.

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Making A Bad Situation Worse

Caltrans eventually turned the complaint over to its internal investigators and temporarily moved Gatewood to Sacramento until the investigation was completed. The investigators ultimately concluded that a hostile environment existed and recommended that the transfer to Sacramento be permanent. According to Gatewood’s attorney, Caltrans management ignored this recommendation and ordered Gatewood back to Stockton against her wishes, where the problems resumed. She eventually suffered a breakdown and after an extended leave, quit. She later sued Caltrans for race discrimination and retaliation.

Jury Sides With Worker

Gatewood’s attorney told CEA that Caltrans contended Gatewood was simply too sensitive. Her attorney said the agency claimed the situation was not hostile enough to cause psychological problems and her stress was related to problems in her personal life.

The jury sided with Gatewood and awarded her $894,000 in damages. Spokesman James Drago told CEA Caltrans was disappointed with the jury verdict and felt its actions were proper. It is considering whether to appeal.

Make Complaint Process Work For You

The jury may well have believed that Gatewood properly followed Caltrans’ complaint procedures but that the system failed her. Caltrans apparently miscalculated the seriousness of her complaint and mishandled it at every level. Here’s how you can avoid making the same mistakes:


  1. Investigate immediately. Once you receive a complaint, try to resolve the matter quickly. A few weeks should be sufficient to talk to the employees involved and interview any co-workers who might be witnesses. According to Gatewood’s attorney, Caltrans waited four months to investigate, sending a signal it didn’t take the complaint seriously.


  2. Impose discipline quickly. Eliminating the problem early may prevent the situation from escalating into a lawsuit and satisfy your legal obligation to stop workplace harassment. Gatewood’s attorney also said that simply separating Gatewood and the clerk would have solved the problem to Gatewood’s satisfaction -and would have saved Caltrans a lot of money and aggravation.


  3. Don’t ignore your own experts. If you act against the advice of your own experts as Caltrans apparently did, make sure you have very good reasons you could explain to a jury. Otherwise, the investigator’s reports and recommendations will be used as ammunition against you.


  4. Avoid retaliation charges. Once an employee has filed a complaint, be very careful before making any adverse employment decisions. Let plenty of time pass and have good documentation if you want to transfer, demote, discipline or terminate the employee because of problems unrelated to the complaint. Otherwise, you could be accused of retaliation.


2 thoughts on “Hostile Environment: How Mishandling A Harassment Complaint Cost One Employer $894,000”

  1. I have worked with Caltrans over a decade. The tip is good, Caltrans believes its own power anyway. This year 2016 Caltrans forces employees to sign “STAFF EXPECTAIONS”, but when the supervisors violated it the management level up to Caltrans Director did not do anything to stop it.

    In year 2005 without prior notice or discussion my supervisor Paul Thacker claimed that due to my workers comp case I had no ability to do my work and l had to leave immediately while I was eating my lunch during my lunch break.

    State Personnel Board claimed that medical termination was not its jurisdiction. My union CSEA ignored my phone call, email, and certified letters. I had no money for attorney, I could only sent letter to Governor Swazneiger for help with all supporting documents. After six months I got my job back.

    However Caltrans did not process reinstatement as we agreed in court, simply cancelled medical termination as if nothing happened.

    My new supervisor Ralph Ricketson claimed that I had bad working history and I sent letters to Governor and other people. He continued harassing and retaliating against me.

    1. He did not provide me job description over five years. The one I got in year 2010 was effective back to year 2005 and it did not reflect the actual jobs that I did.
    2. I did not have evaluations every year as other people got.
    3. I was the only one with college degree and passed the SSA exam. In the office and I was the only one did not get the position. More ridiculously I did not qualified for any upward mobility training too, but I was qualified to do out of classification work over seven years without out of classification pay.
    4. He did not provide me necessary information to do my job such as updated organization chart. It was confidential to him because the organization chart also did not reflect the actual position of the employees.
    5. He always yelled at me. He always failed to respond my email and deleted without reading it.

    All he did was violated STAFF EXPECTAIONS. STAFF EXPECTAIONS is a good policy. In reality no enforcement means no policy.

    1. I have also worked with caltrans for almost a decade. We have policies in place against discrimination, harassment and so forth. Management breaks these policies and think it is OK, after all, they only get a slap on the hand if even that. I was physically assaulted by a Co worker in my cubicle and was pushed and hurt my back. Nothing happened to this Co worker.
      I am really being harassed retaliated against and discriminated against. Management is only making it worse for me. I am very scared to go to work but am trying to be strong. They prey on the weak. My health has gone down hill and my reputation is ruined because of my boss.
      The Co worker who pushed me and stalked me is now being trained in the cubicle next to me.
      Seems like we have no rights. I just want to come to work and do my job and go home,but they will not leave me alone.
      My union does not seem to care as I sometimes think they side with management. I was also forced to sign the staff expectations memo which seems a little harsh.
      I have been passed up for promotions. When does it end. This is middle grade school stuff.
      More people need to step forward to this epidemic nightmare.

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